What Is Asbestos? - A Comprehensive Guide for UK Workers

Asbestos-related diseases kill approximately 6,500 people annually, making them the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United Kingdom. While asbestos is now illegal in the UK, it can still be present in specific locations. You must know the risks if your work is likely to disturb asbestos.

Everyone who works on the refurbishment or maintenance of a building may experience asbestos exposure - including all tradespeople, particularly joiners, electricians, and plumbers. Many people may be accidentally exposed to asbestos in the workplace, making it necessary for all at-risk workers to understand what it is, where it is likely to be found, and what to do if asbestos-containing materials (ACM) are discovered.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is the collective term for silicate minerals with fibrous crystals. Throughout the twentieth century, it was widely mined and utilised in various items, including textiles, plastics, and cement.

Asbestos occurs when a heated magnesium-rich rock, such as peridotite, combines with water in the earth's mantle. This process forms many hydrated magnesium silicates, including asbestos, which can be mined.

There are six naturally occurring silicate minerals with a thin fibrous crystal structure which are classed as asbestos. These are Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Actinolite, and Anthophyllite.

Why Was Asbestos Used So Widely?

The popularity of asbestos skyrocketed during the 1800s because of its various attributes. It was considered an ideal choice for cement and fibre boards as it possessed incombustible properties and remarkable tensile strength. Manufacturers use asbestos in insulation and braking systems because of its heat resistance.

Before fully understanding the dangers of asbestos, its strength, durability, and affordability made it an ideal choice for builders. Because asbestos is frequently mixed with other materials, it's often difficult to tell if you're dealing with it.

As a general indicator, asbestos is likely present in some areas if you work in a building constructed before 2000, as all forms of asbestos use was banned in the UK in 1999.

Is Asbestos Dangerous?

In short, yes. Asbestos comprises several microscopic mineral fibres that, if inhaled, can induce various deadly diseases.

Anyone who works on the fabric of a building is more likely to be exposed to asbestos-containing materials, exacerbating the already severe risks.

Some asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are more hazardous than others. This article explains the differences and how to identify each type of asbestos.

Diseases Caused by Asbestos Exposure


Any sort of asbestos exposure is dangerous. The total amount of fibres breathed in, determined by how much asbestos the individual was exposed to and how long the individual was exposed, is a crucial determinant in the risk of getting an asbestos-related disease. Yet, experts report that even a single or minor exposure to asbestos causes health concerns.

Asbestos-related diseases might take up to 40 years to develop symptoms and become apparent. There are four types of lung disease exposure to asbestos particles causes. These are:

  • Mesothelioma (a type of cancer which is always fatal).
  • Lung cancer (nearly always incurable).
  • Asbestosis (often fatal)
  • Pleural thickening (non-fatal)
Asbestosis Doctor Check

Types of Asbestos

While all asbestos-containing materials pose a danger of fibre release, the risk varies based on the material's physical properties.

Asbestos-containing materials are classified into two types: friable and non-friable.

Friable Asbestos

The more dangerous type of ACMs is 'friable'. Friable asbestos quickly converts to powder form when dry, releasing fibres into the air more readily. Spray coatings, thermal lagging, and ceiling tiles are examples of friable ACMs.

Non-Friable Asbestos

Non-friable asbestos, on the other hand, contains asbestos tightly bound in the matrix of the material. This type of asbestos is also known as 'bonded asbestos'. If non-friable asbestos is not disturbed, so it is unlikely to emit detectable levels of asbestos fibres. Asbestos cement roof sheets, vinyl floor tiles, and plastic moulded toilet cisterns are examples where non-friable ACMs occur.

What Are the Three Main Types of Asbestos?

There are three main types of asbestos fibres found in the UK. These are Chrysotile (White), Amosite (Brown) and Crocidolite (Blue). In this article, we will examine each type of asbestos.

Chrysotile, sometimes known as white asbestos, is the only type of asbestos found in the serpentine family. All other types of asbestos are members of the amphibole family. Although chemically and mineralogically distinct, serpentine and amphibole asbestos demonstrate exceptional temperature and stress resistance.

Amosite (or brown asbestos) and crocidolite are the two most common kinds of amphibole asbestos (or blue asbestos). Amphibole asbestos has needle-like shards that resist being bent or curved, and its fibres are straighter and longer than serpentine fibres.

Most Common Types of Asbestos


Chrysotile Asbestos

Chrysotile Asbestos

Chrysotile asbestos, often called white asbestos, accounted for more than 95% of all asbestos utilised globally. Manufacturers use it in gaskets, cement, insulation, brake pads and linings, joint compound, and roofing material.


Amosite Asbestos

Because of its high tensile strength and heat resistance, amosite asbestos, or brown asbestos, was widely used in cement sheets, insulation, ceiling, roof, floor tiles, roofing goods, fire protection, gaskets, and lagging.



Amosite Asbestos
Crocidolite Asbestos

Crocidolite Asbestos

Crocidolite, also known as blue asbestos, has a high tensile strength but a low heat resistance, making it less suitable for industrial usage. It is no longer mined and was used in ceiling tiles, insulation, battery casings, water cisterns, electrical and communications lines, and millboards.


Less Common Types of Asbestos

Tremolite Asbestos

Tremolite can be brown, white, green, grey, or transparent and has long sharp fibres. This form of asbestos was widely employed in insulation and other building materials. Testers have found trace levels of tremolite asbestos in talc and vermiculite.

Actinolite Asbestos

Actinolite asbestos has a darker appearance than other forms of asbestos. It has long, pointed fibres. This asbestos variety contains iron, magnesium, calcium, and silicon. It is slightly less common than other forms of asbestos. As a result, this type of asbestos is less often found in consumer products.

Anthophyllite Asbestos

Anthophyllite asbestos is yellowish-brown. Magnesium and iron are the main components in this asbestos. Anthophyllite asbestos is more difficult to find than other forms of asbestos. As a result, finding it in consumer items is rare, but it does appear in specific cement and insulation. Builders used anthophyllite in small amounts for insulation and construction materials.


Table Inforgraphic about the six different types of asbestos and the common uses for each type

What does asbestos look like?

The two different types of asbestos, Serpentine asbestos and Amphibole asbestos, are recognisable by their distinct appearance.

Serpentine has wavy, wool-like fibres that can be bent or spiralled easily.

Amphibole asbestos has needle-like shards that are resistant to warping or curling, like fibreglass.

Suspected Asbestos – What Should You Do?

It is challenging to know if a building material, like a tile, contains asbestos simply by looking at it. If you suspect the material you encounter includes asbestos, collect a sample if it is safe to do so, and send it to be thoroughly tested before taking further action. See our Knowledge Bank Identifying, Testing and Removing article for more information on asbestos removal.

Noteworthily, asbestos only emits dangerous fibres when disturbed and is not toxic unless ingested. If you are unsure whether an item you come across contains asbestos, it is advisable to leave it alone and get professional guidance.


Commodious offers health and safety courses, including the IATP-accredited Asbestos Awareness certificate. Tap here to learn more about this training or if you require an asbestos awareness certificate.


Further Reading


How To Get Asbestos Certificate

How To Get Asbestos Certificate


Learn how to obtain an asbestos certificate, ensuring safety in working with asbestos. Get accredited online training and secure your certification today.


10 FAQs About Asbestos Awareness Training, Certification, Tests and Cost

10 FAQs About Asbestos Awareness Training, Certification, Tests and Cost


Find answers to 10 asbestos FAQs with our expert guide. Learn about training, certification, identification, detection, and disposal.

Asbestos in the Workplace: 10 FAQs Explained

Asbestos in the Workplace: 10 FAQs Explained


Learn the truth about asbestos with 10 workplace FAQs explained. Find out how to identify asbestos and protect yourself. Understand the risks and dangers of asbestos in this comprehensive article.

IATP Recognition: Ensuring Compliance and Confidence in Asbestos Training

IATP Recognition: Ensuring Compliance and Confidence in Asbestos Training


Learn about IATP accreditation in asbestos training. Understand its importance and benefits so you can confidently choose quality training.

Types of Asbestos Training

Types of Asbestos Training


Understand the three types of asbestos training: awareness training, non-licensed training, and licensed work. Ensure your employees receive the right level of training to minimise asbestos exposure risks.


Asbestos Awareness Training: Answers to Your FAQs

Asbestos Awareness Training: Answers to Your FAQs


Discover all you need to know about Asbestos Awareness Training. Get answers to your FAQs about our course and learn how to stay safe at work.

Bethany Wesson

Bethany Wesson

Bethany is a freelance content writer and has produced articles for the Commodious Knowledge Bank since 2023. She has written about various health and safety topics, from asbestos to mindful business practices.

  • Asbestos Awareness
  • Workplace Asbestos
  • Asbestos Awareness Certificate
  • Hazards
  • Heath and Safety
  • Asbestos Training
  • Asbestos Awareness Course